Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers. This week I’m featuring Abba Isidore the Priest.
He also said that for forty years he had been tempted to sin in thought but that he had never consented either to covetousness or to anger.
In the history of the Desert Fathers, the name Isidore has been identified with at least 6 different men. From the overseer of a monastery of a thousand monks, to one given charge to the running of a hospital, Isidore was a well known name. Our current study takes us to the desert of Scetis, and the man known as the priest of the mountain.
Abba Isidore, the priest of Scetis, was an early companion of Abba Macarius the Great, having been influenced by the eminent father. Isidore was known as the head of one of the four main communities in Scetis. He trained and mentored Abba Moses the Black, an Ethiopian monk who began as a thief and murderer, and ended as an influential Desert Father.
Some have thought Isidore the Priest of Scetis to be the same Isidore who was made a priest by Athanasius, and later tasked with overseeing a hospital in Alexandria. A case can be made for this, but not definitively. Isidore the overseer of the hospital was a humble and generous man. He was known to be caught up in contemplative prayer during meals, often falling into a trance and experiencing Jesus. These types of stories seem consistent with the humble depth of Isidore the Priest. However, Isidore the Priest and Isidore the Hospitalier were probably two different people.
“Abba Poemen also said about Abba Isidore that wherever he addressed the brothers in church he said only one thing, ‘Forgive your brother, so that you also may be forgiven.’”
He was known as a patient, compassionate man: “It was said of Abba Isidore, priest of Scetis, that when anyone had a brother who was sick, or careless or irritable, and wanted to send him away, he said, ‘Bring him here to me.’ Then he took charge of him and by his long-suffering he cured him.”
In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers handed down through tradition, there are three collections of sayings attributed to men named Isidore. The depth of Isidore the Priest of the mountain of Scetis can be seen in the teachings that have been preserved. Although nothing has been handed down of his life before coming to the mountain, enough of his teaching has been preserved to have an idea of who this man was and what he was passionate about.
The Interior Life
The foundation he set for the spiritual life was that of prayer with the heart set towards the Lord: “When I was younger and remained in my cell I set no limit to prayer; the night was for me as much the time of prayer as the day.” Abba Isidore spent a significant amount of time before the Lord in prayer.
To Isidore, having your will conformed to the will of God was of utmost importance. The will of God was not so much about what a person should do with their life, but more so about who they were becoming: “It is the wisdom of the saints to recognize the will of God. Indeed, in obeying the truth, man surpasses everything else, for he is the image and likeness of God.” In conforming to the will of God man takes on the likeness of God.
He taught that the interior life had to be transformed: “Of all evil suggestions, the most terrible is that of following one’s own heart, that is to say, one’s own thought, and not the law of God. A man who does this will be afflicted later on, because he has not recognized the mystery, and he has not found the way of the saints in order to work in it. For now is the time to labour for the Lord, for salvation is found in the day of affliction: for it is written: ‘By your endurance you will gain your lives’ (Luke 21.19).” Following your own heart (i.e. your thoughts, whims, desires, etc…) would never lead you to the depths of Jesus in the heart. Finding the depths of Jesus in the heart was about being conformed to the image and likeness of Jesus.
One aspect of that transformation was fleeing that which would hinder spiritual growth: ”Abba Isidore said: ‘I once went to a marketplace to sell some handiwork, and when I saw that I was becoming angry, I left my handiwork there and fled.’”
He overcame pride by comparing himself to those who had gone before. The very men he revered would be the example that would teach him humility. When prideful thoughts would whisper to him, “You are a great man,” he would counter them by saying, “Am I to be compared with Abba Anthony; am I become like Abba Pambo, or like the other Fathers who pleased God?” By looking to the humility of his spiritual fathers he would find humility and thus, peace.
Abba Moses, another influential father, would come to Abba Isidore and ask him for advice, specifically concerning lustful thoughts. Once, when Moses was sure that he had reached his end in his struggle and could no longer resist, Abba Isidore took Moses with him and climbed on to the roof of the dwelling and said, “‘Look towards the West.’ So he looked carefully in that direction and saw a host of demons provoking confusion and causing disturbance with their warmongering. Then Abba Isidore said again: ”Now look towards the East.” When he turned to the East, Abba Moses saw countless hosts of Holy Angels surrounded in glory. The Elder then said to Moses: ‘There! These that you see are the ones the Lord sends to help the Saints who struggle; but the ones that you saw previously in the West are those who make war on them. Our allies, therefore, are greater in number. This is why you should have courage and not be afraid.’ After this, Abba Moses gave thanks to God, took courage, and returned to his cell.” Perspective has a funny way of producing hope in someone.
Abba Moses continued to struggle, and increased his practice of discipline such as fasting, prayer, silence, and solitude. Though he had found renewed hope to overcome his struggle, the struggle with lustful thoughts remained. Particularly crippling were the dreams that he would have. After some time had passed, and Moses had exhausted himself, he visited Abba Isidore again looking for guidance. Isidore chastised him for the strictness of his ascetic discipline (fasting, lack of sleep, solitude, etc…) and tells him that, “there must be a certain moderation in the ascetic struggle against the demons.” Abba Moses said he would not stop until the struggle is resolved.
Isidore’s response is particularly insightful: “By the power of the name of Christ, from this moment on these Satanic dreams will cease for you. From now on, you will pray and partake of the Divine Mysteries. It was so that you might not have occasion to think that by your ascetic efforts you conquered this passion that you were so tortured by Satan; this was for your benefit, so that you did not become proud.” The struggle was to prove to Moses that when he struggled in his own strength, he would fail. No amount of effort can overcome what is designed to be overcome by the grace of God. Abba Moses recognized the wisdom in Isidore’s advice and returned to his abode resolving to struggle with moderation. He was never terrorized by his dreams from that point forward.
Isidore’s final words of advice to Moses regarding his struggle with lust was this: “Without the power of the Spirit which our Lord gave us in baptism for the fulfilling of His commandments, which is confirmed in us each day by the taking of His Body and Blood, we cannot be purified from the passions, and we cannot vanquish devils, and we cannot perform the works of spiritual excellence.” Without daily placing ourselves in the hands of Christ, all our struggle is for naught, it is in our own strength. It all comes back to resigning yourself to the will of God, which is to be conformed to the image of Christ.
If God aids your own effort, eventually you think you are able to overcome, and the danger of pride is immediately present. If God removes his strength in order to prove what you lack, then when He comes in His grace and enables your victory, you are convinced it is His victory and humility is produced. In this way, he then is released to exalt you, because in exalting you, God is exalting what He has accomplished through you. As James 4:10 states, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”
Isidore was sought for his teaching, guidance, and advice. He was known for his humility and compassion. He passed away around 391 AD as an eminent example of a Godly life.